Superbike launches almost always take place at fabulous, world-famous racing circuits, hand-picked for their combination of brutal speed and abundant sunshine. In some ways, it's that latter aspect that's most important. Why? Because while there are plenty of riders who don't mind riding in the rain, and a fair few who are damned good at it, nobody in their right mind really loves it. It's cold, it's miserable and the reduced grip means the tiniest of mistakes can send you sliding on your backside.
For the press launch of the 2020 Panigale V4 S, Ducati chose Bahrain International Circuit, a place with the extra prestige of hosting a round of the Formula One World Championship. It more than meets the two criteria above, with a long front straight and just 2.8 inches of rain annually. Despite that, the forecast for my day at the track was rain, rain and more rain. And this forecast was right, except that it didn't just rain, it poured.
Disaster? It seemed that way at first, but after one session fording the many rivers that streamed across the track's paved surface, I started to see a silver lining amid all the cloud. This, as it turns out, would be the perfect way to test this latest revision of Ducati's 214-horsepower rocketship. The refinements in the 2020 flavor of the Panigale V4 are all about boosting rider confidence and feel, and when it comes to riding in the rain, confidence and feel are what it's all about.
Ducati introduced the Panigale model in 2012, a more evocative replacement for the old 1198. It's been a huge success, driving Ducati to massive global growth and becoming the best-selling superbike on the planet. For something so exotic, that's mighty impressive. The Panigale has since seen a series of revisions, including the V4 introduction in 2018. For a company built on twin-cylinder motors, this was not a minor development, but with years of V4 successes in MotoGP -- the global top-tier of two-wheel racing -- it's no surprise that Ducati's first full-production four-cylinder was a beast.
With a 1,103-cc displacement, the four-cylinder, 90-degree V has a 14:1 compression ratio and puts out a whopping 214 hp at 13,000 rpm and 91 pound-feet of torque at 10,000 rpm. That much power in a bike that weighs 436 pounds full of fluids could equal a proper handful, and that leads us to the many significant tweaks the 2020 Ducati Panigale V4 S received from its predecessor.
At its core is a revised frame, borrowed from the R-spec of the earlier V4 and shared with the World Superbike model. Interestingly, this revised frame was redesigned to allow for more lateral and torsional flex, with the goal of providing more feel and compliance in the corners.
A variety of suspension and configuration tweaks follow the trend. A lower spring rate and higher preload again deliver better feel and compliance in the bike. A 5-millimeter higher seat helps raise the bike's center of gravity by -- wait for it -- 5 millimeters, resulting in a 32.9-inch seat height. Those with abbreviated inseams will be standing on their tippy-toes.
All that is wrapped by revised bodywork, also borrowed from the outgoing V4 R. Most notable? Definitely those wings, heavily influenced by the 2016 Ducati Desmosedici that raced in MotoGP. They're more than ornamental, providing a whopping 82 pounds of downforce on the front end at 300 kilometers per hour (about 186 mph). That means more stability, also keeping the nose planted under hard acceleration, so the engine can drive the rear wheel even harder. A taller windscreen and wider fairing provide a more generous pocket for riders to get out of the wind -- or the rain, in my case.
All those changes are easy to spot, but perhaps the biggest advancements in the new Panigale V4 S lie in the software, controlled through a bright, surprisingly readable, 5-inch LCD screen. Thumb controls on the bars deliver access to a dizzying array of configurations, allowing the rider to customize the bike's many riding modes, adapting everything from preload to throttle map.
Ducati Traction Control (DTC) Evo 2 relies on a six-axis inertial measurement unit, sampling the bike's movement on every axis and adjusting power delivery to suit. This new flavor cuts in earlier but more subtly, preventing wheelspin as well as unintended wheelies. For braking, a lean-sensitive ABS keeps the wheels from locking, also easing off the braking force when it detects the rear wheel lifting up.
The point? Making the already outrageously powerful Panigale a bit more accessible to less-experienced riders without decreasing its outright performance. As it turns out, a soaking wet circuit at Bahrain would be an excellent place to see just how accessible that performance was.
By any definition of the word, Bahrain International Circuit is a proper track. Like many modern circuits designed specifically for grand prix racing, it is perhaps lacking in personality, but it has no shortage of speed and challenge. The 3.4-mile configuration used for testing, the same used by Formula One, offers a fine selection of tight, technical, off-camber turns while still delivering multiple sections with big, big speed.
How much speed? My first, tentative lap saw me hit 280 kph on the front straight -- or about 170 mph. On subsequent laps, as my confidence increased, so would my speed, until I was doing 300 kph. That's over 185 mph in conditions wet enough that, as I write this days later, my boots are still drying out.
But while big numbers are always impressive, more impressive was just how easy it was to manage that big bike on Bahrain's occasionally ornery combinations of corners. Many of them just seem to go on forever, requiring that you get hard on the throttle and grab a gear or two while still leaned over. The Panigale V4 S made this easy, traction control light flashing away as the bike modulated power, updated quick-shifter letting me grab the next gear mid-corner without breaking traction.
Bahrain also features sections where one fast corner leads to a tighter one, a challenging proposition on two wheels where you need to brake hard without being able to get the bike upright. This is a great test of the Panigale's updated ABS system, as well as the feel on its new Brembo Stylema monobloc calipers, which can easily lift the rear tire off the ground with the twitch of a finger on the brake lever. Impressively, in a full day of lapping nearly two-dozen riders of various skill levels, there wasn't a single crash.
While I was able to achieve my primary goal of keeping the shiny side of the new Panigale upright in the torrential conditions, I was genuinely having a good time out there. Despite the rivers that ran across the track at numerous inopportune places and despite my fingers getting numb from the cold, I was always raring to go out for the next session. The bike's various safety systems kept me within my limits, but weren't so heavy-handed that I felt disconnected. When I was too aggressive on the throttle the bike still bucked and slid enough to make my eyes open wide. When I got too aggressive with my downshifts under braking, the tail kicked way out far enough to make me think twice about doing that on the next lap.
In other words, while I'm sure the bike's systems saved me on multiple occasions, they also communicated enough feedback to help me save myself.
Ducati really has done a wonderful thing with the Panigale V4 S. The company has of course created a bike with outrageous speed, but it then layered on enough systems to make it genuinely enjoyable in even the worst conditions. While I still wouldn't recommend it for a total novice, an experienced rider who's still getting their track-day legs under them could do a good job of piloting one of these around a track -- and, crucially, keeping it upright. Important, because at a starting price of $28,395 for the V4 S, any little incident will be expensive.
As that rider gains confidence they can gradually dial back those systems, toggling through the bike's comprehensive permutations to slowly peel away the safety blankets and reveal the monster within. This is a bike that can grow with you, but you'll have to be disciplined enough to actually chart your progress and not just rely on the nannies all the time.
The 2020 Ducati Panigale V4 S is an impressive thing, a combination coach and safety blanket, a hugely confidence-inspiring machine and, most importantly, an absolute riot.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.